Web Writing Doesn't Pay as Well as Print Writing (NOT!)

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Let's tackle a very common myth about Web writing. I see it all the time on freelance writing blogs and forums. There are people out there telling new or aspiring Web writers that the Web simply doesn't pay as much as print work does, and they need to get used to it. I've even seen the term "old school" tossed around referring to writers who don't buy into the "the Web's changing the writing world, and we just have to deal with the cutthroat competition" mentality. Um, no.

Here's the truth for you:

How much you get paid as a freelance writer has absolutely nothing to do with whether you write for print publications or online clients. That is determined by each individual market. And let's be frank. If you aren't earning as much as you feel you should be writing for the Web, that's not the Web's fault -- it's yours.

  • YOU aren't targeting the right markets.
  • YOU aren't setting appropriate rates.
  • YOU are the one disrespecting your work by choosing to not be fairly compensated for it.

No one else is to blame. Not the clients advertising crap gigs that aren't in your market. Not all the overseas writers willing to work for a penny per word or less on those same jobs. Just you.

This is usually where I get a few people saying "you know, you're right and I need to try harder." And I often also get a few in the lazier "but low paying gigs are all I ever see advertised" crowd. If you find yourself in that latter group, we need to have a chat.

Freelance Writing Job Boards Might Be Holding You Back

If you get the bulk of your freelance writing job leads by trolling writing blogs, classified sites, and job boards, don't be surprised if you're usually only exposed to the lower end of the pay spectrum. That's what's usually advertised. You need to work a bit harder if you want higher paying work. No one's going to hand over the juicy gigs because you're too lazy to find them or still ignorant of where they are. You're in business. Knowing where your prospects are isn't optional. It's your job.


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The funniest thing about this Web writing myth is that it's based on the easy to find gigs. But when it comes to print writing work, people seem to have no problem at all finding publications and pitching them. Why are they so much lazier on the Web? Perhaps they're just used to instant gratification. Well, sorry folks. It doesn't usually work that way -- at least not when you're starting out.

I've said this before (for years), and I'm sure I'll have to say it again:

Most of the best Web writing gigs are never publicly advertised!

Clients are just as aware of the low paying markets as you are. They know there are loads of bottom-of-the-barrel "writers" out there willing to work for next to nothing (and produce sub-par work in the process). They don't want those writers. They're also well aware that if they advertise in the same places those writers look for work, they'll be bombarded with offers from those unqualified freelancers, and it becomes more work for them. They clearly don't want that, and there's no reason they should have to deal with it.

Instead, higher paying Web writing clients either tend to advertise on more specialized job boards (although even that's fairly infrequent these days), they search for a freelance writer on their own, or they get referrals from others they trust. That, and once they find a gem of a writer, they tend to keep them busy with repeat work -- where hopefully most of your high paying Web writing work will ultimately come from.

So what can you do to catch the eye of these higher paying clients on the Web? It's not as difficult as you might think.

How to Land High Paying Freelance Writing Clients Online

I already mentioned how many clients with real budgets go about finding their freelance writers online. The rest is just a matter of logic. So let's look at each of those methods and see what you have to do if you want to break into professional writing markets online, and we'll also take a quick look at a more aggressive approach.

Landing Clients Who Search for Freelance Writers

One of the best things you can do for your freelance writing business is make your professional website search engine friendly. Yes, you have to worry about that icky little thing called SEO (but not in any sleazy way -- I promise). If you don't have a website yet, you have no excuse for that. If you can't manage your own Web presence, no client should be trusting you to manage theirs. Consider it your top portfolio piece as a freelance Web writer.

Target relevant keyword phrases that people are searching for. But don't make them so general that your competition is too broad and you'll likely never rank well early on -- you can always target broader keywords in time. For example, when I launched ProBusinessWriter.com I started out focusing on keyword phrases directly related to the domain name -- "pro business writer" and "professional business writer." I ranked well fairly quickly. As of today, I hold both the first and second positions in Google's search results for each of those terms (although rankings can change frequently).

Those aren't highly searched keyword phrases really, but they (and some other long tail search phrases) do bring in enough targeted traffic that I still get constant emails from prospects, even though I'm not taking on new clients. At the time, I didn't even bother targeting the phrase "business writer," because I knew it would take time to compete on something that broad, and I wanted to get some immediate attention drummed up. Now I'm even on the first results page for that, in the eighth position (although again, that can fluctuate up and down periodically).

Your own website can also greatly influence how much you can get paid for SEO writing. If you can't get your own site ranking well for targeted keywords and phrases, you show clients they should choose another writer who can. Again, to be frank -- if a client isn't checking this before hiring you to do SEO writing work, they're probably fairly incompetent. That's why you have big sites that will take nearly any writer (which pay crap) versus those who understand the combination of quality content and search rankings, who will pay handsomely for writers who can provide both.

This is an excellent way to get high paying clients, because once your site is ranking well organically there's really very little else you have to do to get these kinds of search-based inquiries. I find it also helps to post your rates (even if just ranges) publicly, and to have a portfolio on your site. If you don't, your competition will. And if their details satisfy the client's needs, they're probably not going to bother wasting time contacting you for rates and samples that might not.

Landing Clients Who Find Writers Through Referrals


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There's no way around it. If you want the high paying Web writing gigs that are often landed through referrals, you have to build your professional network. But don't just network with prospects. Instead focus on networking with colleagues -- both those directly competing with you and those with other Web writing specialties.

Why? Well, remember how I said my website still brings in regular inquiries even though I'm not currently taking on new clients? Guess what happens to them. I refer those prospects to writers in my network. And I don't just refer them to anyone -- I refer them to people I can trust. If you build contacts with people who are already getting the high paying freelance writing work online, chances are good that they'll occasionally either subcontract work or refer it to others in their network. You want to be one of those people.

It's a good idea to make yourself stand out (but that doesn't mean asking them if they have referrals -- that's kind of obnoxious 90% of the time; 100% of the time if I don't know you extremely well). Blog. Comment on others' blogs. Use Twitter. Use LinkedIn. Join writing forums. Do what you need to do to get to know your colleagues.

You might be surprised how well-connected many of them are -- we don't generally spout our client lists and contacts publicly, because we don't want people poaching our gigs. But we will privately refer you to prospects and even our existing clients when they have a need for new writers.

For example, I have one client who tends to pay fairly well for blogging work. Not only have I referred four of All Freelance Writing's current contributors to articles for him at different times, but also one of our former contributors here (who still writes for me elsewhere), and Stacey Abler while I was coaching her (he happened to have a gig in a niche she was uniquely qualified to write in compared to others in my network). I have weeks where I might not have referrals to give out, and others where I could have a half dozen every other day or so. Other professional writers are often in similar boats. We can't always take on every project that comes our way, and we're happy to share the wealth.

Network!

Landing Web Writing Clients Who Don't Even Know They Need You

Those tactics are great if the client already knows they need a writer and they're looking for one. It's just about making yourself visible. But there are countless big budget clients out there who have no idea they need you -- at least not until you tell them!

If you see a website -- especially one for a company that you know is well-funded and capable of paying your set rates -- and the content or copy is atrocious, offer to spruce it up for them. Obviously you need to be tactful when you approach them, but plenty are oblivious to the fact that there are problems. If you can let them know gently, and pitch them on some edits, you might just be surprised. And that editing gig might just lead to new writing gigs with them in the future -- maintaining their blog (or setting one up for them if they don't have one yet), writing new copy for a new product launch, etc.

Another option is to find Internet marketing firms, SEO firms, or online PR firms. Pitch them with your freelance Web writing services too. Middlemen clients are great, because they can keep you busy with work from their own larger client base. Not a business writer? That's okay! They need feature articles, blog posts, SEO Web content -- just about anything you can imagine writing-wise.

If you were one of those people who bought into the myth that Web writing naturally pays less than print writing, it's time to wake up. Web writing is what you make of it (just like print writing where you probably wouldn't work for one of those cheap-ass publications paying with copies). Settle or succeed? That is up to you.

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, and indie author. She began writing for clients in 1999 and started her first blog in 2004.

She owns 3 Beat Media - a publishing and client services company which operates All Indie Writers as well as several other websites and blogs including The Busy Author's Guide and BizAmmo. Jenn comes from a background in online PR and social media consulting, having owned a small PR firm for several years before choosing to pursue a full-time writing and publishing career.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names in the areas of children's fiction, mysteries, and horror fiction. Jenn is an active member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) and currently serves as the organization's Assistant Coordinator of Promotions and Social Media.


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18 Comments

  1. Carol Tice August 17, 2010 Reply

    Right on, Jen! I’ve recently found online markets that pay $2,000 an article. I always think it’s funny when writers say to me, “My goal is to concentrate on writing for print and getting off the Web.” There’s a LOT of opportunity online to earn very well. Find publications and companies that need to speak about complex topics to sophisticated audiences, and you’ll find the money.

    • Jennifer Mattern August 19, 2010 Reply

      Yeah, I’ll never understand those who still think of the Web as a lesser medium in some way. It’s all about the individual markets. It would be like saying all blogs are bad because splogs exist. Blah.

      Out of curiosity, is the $2k market an online version of a magazine or something along those lines? I tend to prefer short quicker posts to features for the type of writing I do, so per article rates are lower, but hourly they usually work out better or quite similar to the more drawn out online pieces. So just curious where in that spectrum that gig fell — and don’t worry — not asking for you to share your gem of a market with everyone. ;)

      Like you say though, it’s about finding clients looking to capitalize on certain types of audiences. And I think it’s important for writers to realize that just because something seems “easy” to them (like social media and public relations are to me, or finance and insurance would be moreso for Yo), that doesn’t mean it’s so simple in general that you don’t deserve to be paid well to talk about it. They often pay for expertise more than they’ll pay for general writing ability. And everyone has expertise in something.

  2. David Farrell, writter August 17, 2010 Reply

    Keep the great posts coming, Jenn! I am currently a content mill writer looking to make the jump and this blog has not only opened my eyes to the greater possibilities but is a resource for learning things that, as you mentioned, people are reluctant to post on the web. Thanks for everything you do for writers!

    David Farrell

    • Jennifer Mattern August 19, 2010 Reply

      Glad to hear you’re ready to move on to bigger and better things David! And I’m even happier if All Freelance Writing helped to “open your eyes” or do anything else to help you make that decision. :)

      If you haven’t yet, be sure to take a look at the freebies section (in the big bar near the top of the blog). You’ll find some rate-related tools and other things that might help you crunch the numbers and find out what you’ll need to charge to make the leap into a more sustainable higher-income freelance writing career. :)

  3. Rebecca Garland August 17, 2010 Reply

    To a great extent the print base is shrinking and the online base is growing. Readers are moving online in droves. Where the readers go, the money follows.

    • Jennifer Mattern August 19, 2010 Reply

      I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see a resurgence in print publishing when the general economy improves. I just think it’ll be leaner — and hopefully better for it — and that we’ll start to see more independent print publications again.

      But you’re right. The online base is definitely growing — and not just with all of the cheapo webmasters out there looking for penny-per-word content (or mills). Every company that’s come online in the last decade needs writers, and many need more than one, and many don’t stay with the same writer forever. And every business not yet on the Web also needs copy or content to get them there. The opportunities are practically endless.

  4. Kathleen K. O'Connor August 18, 2010 Reply

    This is so true. Job boards really are a waste of time. When I first started out, I used to apply to all those low paying jobs and thought making a good living as an online writer was impossible. I started contacting companies directly and had much more luck with that! I need to work on the networking part. Thanks for the empowering post.

    • Jennifer Mattern August 19, 2010 Reply

      Every once in a while you can find a gem there. The problem is that so many people take the lazy way out of either only, or primarily, checking job boards that if you found that gem so did a hell of a lot of others. I don’t know about you, but I don’t believe in throwing yourself into a meat market environment where you have to directly compete with a lot of other people, many of whom are going to make it a priority to undercut each other. That’s why bidding sites make me cringe. I think it will probably have to be said a lot more often, and by a lot more writers, before the overall obsession with freelance writing job leads from job boards goes away. It’s unfortunate, but I’m still hopeful it will happen.

  5. Prerna August 18, 2010 Reply

    I so agree with you Jenn. Even though I write a lot for residual and content mill sites:-), I also have some, really well-paying gigs (.10-.15 cents per word) and have landed a few contracts by networking and cold-pitching!
    Now, all I need to do is get myself a pro-looking site and not just a Hire Me page on my current blog:-0

    • Jennifer Mattern August 19, 2010 Reply

      Ack!!! I had to avert my eyes there for a moment. ;)

      Definitely work on getting a professional site if you think it will help. If your blog is directly targeting your target market, you could certainly make them one site — that’s what I do at http://ProBusinessWriter.com. If your blog targets colleagues more or a separate niche audience, then it’s definitely going to be better if you make the professional site a separate one (from a marketing standpoint at least).

  6. Wolf Shadow August 18, 2010 Reply

    Wow, this was a really interesting post and changed my perspective on several topics (especially networking). Thanks you for sharing your insights.

    I know that I’m going to sound like an absolute dolt, but I’m curious as to how you (or others) network. Network as in “get off the chair and find other writers” or is this primarily online?

    If you refer other writers in your network to potential clients, how do you know the quality of his or her work (or if that person will deliver on time, etc.)? I know it sounds like an odd question, but I subcontracted to a former colleague once and was shocked as to how that person worked and the quality of the final project. I’m worried about my reputation if I refer someone whose work isn’t that great and how would I truly assess this?

    • Jennifer Mattern August 19, 2010 Reply

      Personally I primarily network online. That’s because I write almost exclusively online. If you wanted to write in print, you’d probably want to broaden that a bit more. If you wanted to work with local companies, you’d probably network more face-to-face locally. etc.

      As for giving referrals, there’s always an element of faith to it. When I refer AFW writers, I know how they work and how they are with deadlines, because they write directly for me too. But even in those cases there’s never a guarantee. For example, I used to buy from a certain WordPress designer / coder frequently. I referred him to a client of mine who needed custom work done. The guy completely screwed over my client. I got pulled into the middle of it. It was an enormous hassle, and an awful experience. The client didn’t blame me at all for it, but I still apologized for the crap referral. I also decided to no longer work with that individual. It’s a risk you take. That said, I’ve referred several writers to the same client who have worked out well, and he still asks me for referrals when he needs them.

      With writers, I’ve generally known them for a while. I’ve at least seen their writing on their blogs or portfolio pieces to a degree where I can tell if their general style would suit the person’s project. It’s a bigger risk with an existing client of mine, so the trust level has to be much greater than if I were referring a new contact to someone.

      I also stick to referrals and don’t subcontract. Taking on subcontractors means you take direct responsibility for their work. I’m in this business to write, not to manage others or clean up their messes. So I choose not to take that route. It’s fine if others prefer it.

      When you give a referral, it’s a good idea to let the prospect or client know the extent of your relationship — have they worked for you, are they just a client you think might be a good fit, etc.? Make it clear that you haven’t worked with them directly if you haven’t — that it’s a “possible” good fit, even though you can’t guarantee it. That’s what I’d suggest at least.

  7. P.S. Jones August 18, 2010 Reply

    This was a great read. Especially the parts about job boards. You may start off there in the very, very beginning but if you want to do this fulltime and make a living at it, you must progress past it. It’s not where the real work is. Thoughtful networking and approaching prospects directly is how you build a longterm business.

    The reason I became a freelancer in the first place is because I wanted control over my work time, space and income. I make my own decisions now. Now, what is low pay may in my book doesn’t have to be the same as what you consider low pay. But that’s okay. Because when I see something that I think is low pay, I have trained myself to assume that project must be for someone else. Not me. I don’t care who takes that job because it’s outside of what I consider fair or worthwhile. What I don’t understand is people who get offended by low paying jobs. I think that the minimum wage Taco Bell pays its cashier is low. But I’m not offended that they offer that. I just know that that job isn’t for me.

    • Jennifer Mattern August 19, 2010 Reply

      There’s definitely nothing wrong with the people who do choose to work in lower paying markets (as long as they know what they’re getting into, clients in those markets aren’t lying to them to solicit them in the first place, and they don’t come whining about the low pay they chose to take later). There’s no need to be “offended” by what the low market clients offer. That’s just a waste of time. If they’re not in your market, they shouldn’t exist to you in that sense anyway. The lying is the only exception with me. I do get greatly offended when mills and others blatantly lie to new writers (and experienced ones at that) with promises of perks and benefits that just aren’t realistic. Because once they suck them in, they know it’s often tough for them to get out.

  8. Devon Ellington August 19, 2010 Reply

    Totally agree, Jenn. I think too many writers think that content mills are the only option for online writing.

    My favorite thing is to find a company I like and whose mission I think is great, and then convince them they can’t live without me. Not just a writer, but ME. I point out how I’m unique and uniquely suited to their mission.

    • Jennifer Mattern August 19, 2010 Reply

      Unfortunately it goes back to being lazy. People see what’s most visible, and they assume it represents either an entire market or the bulk of it or at least overall trends (which content mills in no way do).

      And agreed. Finding companies who don’t know they need you yet is a great way to go, especially when a writer’s getting started and clients aren’t finding them directly yet. And every once in a while there’s simply a client you’d love to work for, but they don’t seem to be hiring. Never hurts to pitch them in that case!

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